Religious Sources for Sainthood in Islam

Prof. Abdulaziz Sachedina
Professor of Religious Studies
University of Virginia

This lecture provides an introduction to the definition and role of the saint in the Islamic tradition. It explores the topic linguistically, historically, as well as phenomenologically.

The very concept of sainthood as it is seen in other traditions, namely a spiritual elite which has a special relationship to God and, in some cases, possesses supernatural powers, is a relatively late development is Islam. The terminology for such a relationship does not even exist in any of the Islamic languages. Because Islam is so strictly monotheistic, it demands a complete separation between the divine and human realms. The divine is approachable only through obedience to the will of God. Mohammed himself did not claim to possess supernatural powers other than his role as prophet. His role as a prophet was not to predict the future nor to perform miracles, but to communicate the will of God that enabled his followers to achieve isma, divine protection. It was only some two hundred years after Mohammed that the figure of the saint, or holy man, found its way into Islam. This came about as the result of two factors. The first was the influence of the local cultures in the countries where Islam had become the dominant religion. The second was the perception on the part of the Islamic society of the moral decline of the rulers in the Ommayad period (8-9 century CE), which gave rise to a spiritual opposition led by various ‘holy men’. This tension between the civil government in Islamic countries, and the pious-minded opposition to the government based on ideal, spiritual models, has continued until modern times.

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